MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The youngest elected state lawmaker in America has just arrived home for the weekend.
“I’ll open the garage door so her laundry can roll on in here,” says Craig Blair, father of Saira Blair — 18 years, 4 months, 10 days. “She’s always got some.”
He peeks out the window to the approaching headlights of his daughter’s new Jeep, which she purchased a few weeks earlier after winning her seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates, knowing the position came with a $20,000-a-year salary and would require a lot of driving.
“I didn’t bring any laundry this time,” says Saira, a college freshman, as she comes in through the garage carrying a duffel bag.
“Well, your mother will be glad to hear that.”
She peels off her coat, revealing black leggings, a West Virginia University Mountaineers sweatshirt and a long ponytail. She drops off her luggage in her childhood bedroom at the end of the hall and comes back to the living room.
“What do you have going on tomorrow?” asks Craig, who is himself a state senator and was his daughter’s campaign manager.
“I might see some friends. I have to write those thank-you letters.”
The letters are to her supporters, some of the 18,000 West Virginians Saira will be representing in the 59th District — a mostly rural, mostly Republican region two hours from Washington. She won the election in November by beating her opponent, a 44-year-old attorney, with 63 percent of the vote, and since then she has become the most famous state legislator in the country, as well as in her house.
This is her first weekend at home since winning.
Craig sits back in his armchair. “You got some mail while you were gone,” he tells Saira. “Your committee assignments — I have them here somewhere.”
Saira finds the mail in the kitchen and sorts through a stack of envelopes addressed to the title that will become official after her January swearing-in: “The Honorable Saira Blair.”
“NBC? Are they still wanting an exclusive?” Craig asks, trying to keep track of the publicity requests for Saira’s first day on the job.
“I don’t know,” Saira says.
Already she’s done Newsweek, talking about making West Virginia gas prices competitive. She did Glenn Beck and talked about lowering corporate taxes. She went to New York for one interview and ran into Bill O’Reilly in the studio, which thrilled her because she loves Bill O’Reilly, and she was surprised at how tall he was.
Saira keeps sifting through the mail, pausing on one envelope. “I got something from the AARP.”
Craig nods. “When you’re a delegate, it’s nonstop.”
Her decision to run for office happened like this, the Blairs say. Last year while Saira was still in high school, she took part in a government program in which students put a mock bill through the state legislature. She loved it. Meanwhile, she’d grown up learning about politics, watching her father work.
As Saira’s mother, Andrea, remembers it, discussions of Saira’s candidacy were joking at first. One day, the jokes turned serious: Saira was troubled that young college graduates left West Virginia because they couldn’t find jobs, and she didn’t want to wait until she was older to fix the state. The legislature meets part time, she reasoned, so she could take the spring semester to govern and return to her economics major in the summer.
“She laid out her own campaign, and I just put the polish on it,” Craig says. “Two things she did that were advantageous were tricks I wanted to do for a long time.”
The first was handwritten letters — 3,500 of them, on Saira’s stationery, giving potential voters the location of their nearest polling place.
The second was a 16-page color-printed pamphlet introducing Saira to the state:
“Hello! My name is Saira Blair. I am a fiscal conservative. I’m Pro Life. I’m Pro Marriage. I’m Pro Family. I’m Pro Business because that’s where jobs come from. These are my core personal and political beliefs!”
Craig added his own letter: “I don’t normally endorse candidates during primary elections, but I’m making an exception this time. Yes, she’s my daughter, and she has earned my support!”
Saira doesn’t want people to think she’s her father’s mouthpiece, she says. She has her own ideas, like the morning-after pill: Craig approves of it, Saira doesn’t. She voraciously reads West Virginia news, she says. She cites as a current favorite book “Unleashing Capitalism,” an economic treatise on returning prosperity to West Virginia. She admires Condoleezza Rice and Shelley Moore Capito, the state’s senator-elect. And when campaigning, she tried to come across not as an 18-year-old but as a serious contender.
Craig says Saira was better than a lot of first-time candidates he’s seen, certainly more confident than he was in his first campaign. “She has it natural; most do not.”
Saturday morning now. In the living room, Craig works on his laptop, Andrea folds laundry and Saira evaluates her options for her House committee assignments.
“The minor committees usually meet on Wednesdays, and you’ll probably be assigned two,” Craig calls over to Saira. “Think long and hard about the committees you want, because you’ll probably get them.”
Saira reads aloud from a sheet of orientation materials: “On the back it says, ‘Requests or concerns on office assignments.’ ”
“Don’t put anything,” Craig advises. “Trust me. The logistics of that is a pain, so they appreciate it when you don’t make it any harder.”
“That does seem like a struggle,” Saira agrees.
“But for your seating assignment, write down that you want to be seated next to a senior member,” he offers. “If you want to have fun, tell them to seat you next to Bob Ashley. That’s who I sat next to.”
“I’ll just write, ‘A senior member.’ ”
The senior member Saira is replacing is a Republican named Larry Kump, a 66-year-old retired prison administrator who was in office for two terms before Saira beat him in the primary. He wasn’t altogether surprised to lose, he later said — he views himself as an independent voter and thought the district might want someone more inclined to vote the party line.
“It would be funny if you got Dad’s old seat,” Andrea says.
“Dad, which committees did you first have?” Saira asks.
“When I first started? Government Organization, Transportation, and Constitutional Revision. That’s not there anymore.”
“I’ll put Government Organization and Education, because I’ve just come out of the system so I think I have good insight,” she says. “I’d like Finance. But everyone wants Finance.”
Later that afternoon, Saira and her high school friend Amber split a milkshake at a diner and then go shopping at a thrift store. “Basically all of our clothes come from thrift stores,” Amber says cheerfully. She looks at a blouse in Saira’s hand. “If you don’t buy that, I will.”
The two check the price tag and learn the store is having a sale in which everything is $1. Their arms fill up with clothing.
“Is this a purple jumpsuit?” Amber asks, pulling a garment from a rack.
“Don’t even hate on it. I love it.”
Amber, whom Saira became friends with in show choir, was a volunteer for Saira’s campaign. She hadn’t been interested in politics before, but Saira inspired her, she says.
Saira is growing used to being a public figure. Like yesterday, when Craig went to get his oil changed, the guy at the car place recognized him and told him his teenage daughter was a huge fan of Saira’s. People spot her on the street sometimes and ask for pictures.
At church on Sunday morning, other parishioners stop to congratulate her. “Do a good job,” one man admonishes at the coffee cart before the service.
“Oh, I will,” she tells him.
Another family stops her after the service. “I haven’t seen you since the election!” the mother says. “We are so excited. It all sounds pretty neat.”
“Thank you,” Saira says. She tells people that she and her dad are going to rent an apartment together in Charleston, to save money. She tells them she’s excited about summer school, and that she would probably go even if she wasn’t in office, because she can’t stand to be unproductive. Saira has always had a good head on her shoulders, her mother says. One of those kids who was just born mature, who never made her parents worry, who kept a 4.2 grade-point average in high school even while running a campaign out of her bedroom.
When Saira first said she was going to run, “I was apprehensive,” Andrea says. “But I knew she could handle the extra work because, my golly, she was already in five or six different clubs.”
After church, Amber comes over again to help Saira with her thank-you notes. The two sit on the sofa while Saira opens her mail and composes responses.
“Dad, who is Doug Reynolds?” Saira calls over to Craig, who is eating breakfast at the kitchen table.
Craig swallows a bite of egg. “Delegate.”
“Where’s he from?”
“Is he a Democrat?” she asks.
Saira laughs and reads Reynolds’s congratulatory letter aloud. “It was a great night for you and all Republicans. But not one I’d wish to repeat.” She picks up a fresh sheet of stationery. “Advise is spelled a-d-v-i-s-e, right?” she confirms with Amber.
“It’s good to know I have senior members available to advise me,” she writes in response to Doug Reynolds.
She opens an invitation to a holiday party. “Dad, should I go to this Christmas party at West Virginia State University?”
He glances over. “I did keep that invitation around so you could go if you wanted.”
“Craig,” Andrea interjects. “I think she got one of her own invitations. That’s hers.”
Saira confirms. Hers.
She opens another letter from another delegate. “Maybe I should get flashcards made up with everyone’s name on them,” she says.
When Saira finishes with the letters, she and Amber go online to look for something to do. They wanted to paint Christmas ornaments at a make-your-own pottery place, but can’t find one that’s open. Instead, they find a museum they’ve never been to — a place called Discovery Station just over the Maryland border.
When they get there, it becomes apparent that Discovery Station is a children’s museum. The furniture is in miniature. A basket at the front contains visitors’ letters to Santa Claus.
Saira and Amber go inside anyway. They admire a model of the solar system, an exhibit on Japanese lunch boxes and a 15-foot model of the Titanic set up in a room playing the theme song from the Leonardo DiCaprio movie on loudspeakers.
“Where were her priorities?” Saira asks, as she examines a display reporting the exorbitant costs of one passenger’s jewelry.
When Saira and Amber emerge from the Titanic exhibit, a museum employee stops them and asks if she can take Saira and Amber’s picture. They agree, and, in one of her final weekends before taking public office, Saira smiles and poses in an alcove next to a large triceratops skull.
“I’ll put it up on our Facebook,” the employee says, snapping a few images with her phone. “We don’t get many people your age in here.”